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Gillard, work and welfare

  • 17 August 2011

A sense of malaise and uncertainty pervades the Australian political scene, with both major parties derided as bereft of ideas.

This was not always so: in the 1900s, prior to the advent of the two-party system, Australia was perceived as a testing-ground for experimental, egalitarian policies. As the historian John Rickard wrote in his biography of Justice Henry Higgins, the first President of the Arbitration Court, social experiments such as arbitration, the eight-hour day and old age pensions led to Australasia being dubbed 'the social laboratory of the world'.

Of course, this egalitarian vision had appalling flaws, including its exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Asian migrants. It should be noted, though, that the benefits of the Protectionist Deakin Government's reformist legislation went beyond the tangible; it spoke to the deeper needs of human beings within the capitalist system.

The 1907 Harvester decision exemplified this ideal: Higgins interpreted the expression 'fair and reasonable wage' to mean 'the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilised community'.

Although in rejecting John Howard's Work Choices regime at the 2007 election the nation reaffirmed its commitment to the rights of employees, Australia now seems a laboratory of a very different kind: there is a bipartisan commitment to the testing out of punitive welfare policies, particularly on Indigenous people. Sociologist Eva Cox has been a trenchant critic of the income management policies of the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments, characterising 'the whole Northern Territory' as an 'experiment'.

The persistence of the emphasis on work from both sides of politics is also striking. Tony Abbott's language — including suggestions that long-term unemployed people be compelled to move to areas where unskilled work is available — seems a continuation of the rhetoric of the Howard and Costello era. It is Julia Gillard's approach that has attracted more commentary, precisely because it seems inconsistent with aspects of her party's history.

The journalist Brian Toohey noted that 'in emphasising hard work, Gillard never gives any hint that she values the labour movement's contribution to reducing working hours, starting with the eight-hour-day campaign in the 1850s'. Toohey further noted that despite the nominal 38 hour week, in July 2010 men in full-time jobs worked an average of 41 hours a week and women almost 36 hours, and that around 1.5 million people now work 50 or more hours a week.

The difficulty of combining work with